China is making serious efforts to boost its universities’ global rankings as part of a strategy to promote the nation’s international competitiveness and knowledge economy, investing more resources to attract the brightest and best teachers and students.

However, amid the push for greatness, the country’s leadership is also setting up constraints on academic and teaching activities that could seriously inhibit these ambitions.

In his latest effort to tighten the country’s grip on education, President Xi Jinping (習近平) vowed last week at a high-profile meeting to turn universities into “strongholds of the party’s leadership” and make orthodox Marxism dominate the minds of its scholars and students.

China’s President Xi Jinping warns Communist Party schools against ‘Western capitalist’ values

The party has tightened its grip on the academic world in recent years, setting up restrictions on academic activities, building a strong firewall to resist foreign-funded schemes from penetrating classrooms, lectures, forums and book clubs, and kicking scholars out if they spread “Western values” in campuses. There is also a fundamental shift in tone regarding the utility and desirability of foreign ideas and knowledge. Last week’s high-level leadership meeting was just a further effort to strengthen such controls.

Theoretical study and historic experiences show that academic freedom is vital to creating world-class research and teaching institutes. The unfettered search for truth by scholars and scientists is essential for excellence in any first-class academic institution.

The United States offered the best example of how the greatest universities are built and run, as the super power also occupies the vast majority of the world’s top 100 universities and the lion’s share of the top 25. The idea of academic freedom is enshrined as the raison d’être of academic life in their campuses, which is also widely accepted as a core value of universities elsewhere in developed free democracies.

Xi calls for more thought control on China’s campuses

The freedom to learn and teach is also essential for the training of the best future talents.

The Chinese leadership’s effort to tighten its grip on campuses comes amid a growing number of Chinese young people hoping to study overseas, in the US and the Untied Kingdom in particular, as a result of parents’ and children’s increasing disappointment in the country’s politically dictated education system. While China’s hard sciences are narrowing their gap with the developed West, the ideology-related social sciences are lagging far behind, due to the draconian restrictions imposed on political and ideological thought, as the party is now resisting anything they label as “Western values”.

Such campaigns will also seriously set back the government’s effort to attract high-quality overseas-educated talent to take up jobs in Chinese universities.

What is worse is such politically motivated campaigns will distort our understanding of knowledge and truth, as suggested by two historic events. The suppression of Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism and Copernicanism, and the acceptance of the “Michurinism” as the official science of genetics by the Soviet regime, despite the nearly universal rejection of the doctrine by scientists throughout the world, speaks volume about the importance of academic freedom in our pursuit of knowledge and understanding of truth.

China’s ongoing campaigns are intended to legitimise the party’s monopoly of knowledge and truth, in order to legitimise their rule amid the bankruptcy of its orthodox Marxism ideology.

But such efforts are doomed to fail as Albert Einstein, the greatest physicist and scientist of 20th century, once advised: “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s